Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities whupped the ass of the architectural and planning establishment, has died. Jacobs wrote until the end of her life, just a week before her 90th birthday, but that first book was the barn-burner. “A city cannot be a work of art.” She said, and italicized it to make sure we got the point. The city is organic, said Jacobs. You can’t plan it.
Jacobs emerged as a community activist who took down (an already wounded) Robert Moses and launched the concept that neighbors had a right to say how their neighborhood looked and what should go in it. A fifty-year history of urban planning as an elite, expert enterprise ended on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village when Jacobs systematically disemboweled the “Radiant Garden City” of Howard, Burnham, LeCorbusier and Moses.
A housewife and mother who pulled apart the metalogic of urban planning. She wasn’t just against urban renewal – she understood it better than its proponents. My favorite part of Death and Life –which I assigned in my seminar this semester – is near the end when she exposes the pseudo-science of urban planning. Twenty years earlier Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture had trumpeted modern architecture and planning as an expression of the new Einsteinian understanding of space and time. Jacobs exposed this as a rank falsehood. Continue Reading
Last week the Traditional Building show was in Chicago, which is a trade show catering to the needs of preservationists. The floor was full of window and masonry restorers, stained glass outfits, museum villages, and manufacturers of everything from floors to real roofing tiles. They also had a row of us not-for-profits, including the National Trust and LPCI (link at right) and the dear old School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Historic Preservation Program.
Traditional Building is the name of a magazine founded by Clem Labine, an original Brooklyn Heights brownstoner, back in the early 1970s and he was there as well. The group that puts on the show also put on a series of speakers and presentations that were really quite excellent. I’m not saying that just because I was one of them, nor because we all got to see Bob Yapp do his fabulous, funny and fact-filled number on replacement windows. Everyone I knew commented on the interest and quality of the presentations. Continue Reading
Image: The permanent fog of a 1980s replacement window.
Friday there was an article about replacement windows in the Tribune. Like most consumer-oriented pieces, it warned about the pitfalls and pitches of various types of window replacement – wood is a better insulator but more expensive; plastics can’t match colors and look like crap; installation makes all the difference. The last point is a good one – a large fraction of people who replace their windows don’t get much energy savings because the key is the window frame and if it is not replaced, the air just runs right around those new $500 double-glazed tilt-pacs.
But the key consumer decision was left out of this article, as it usually is. How about repair? The sustainable answer, the answer that employs people but pollutes less. Continue Reading
Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois released its 10 Most list last Wednesday in Springfield. That is, Ten Most Endangered Buildings in the state. The ones in Chicago are particularly evocative because of what they share: deteriorating inner-city neighborhoods. In the west side’s North Lawndale neighborhood, the “most endangered” was not a building but a bunch of buildings stretching along Douglas Boulevard, massive former synagogues and schools. The threat is basically the weight of poverty and disinvestment multiplied by years.
North Lawndale was featured in a 1987 Chicago Tribune series as the most impoverished neighborhood in the city. My wife Felicity Rich photographed the buildings for the AIA Guide to Chicago in 1992 because most of the photographers didn’t want to go there. Continue Reading
Preservation is a fundamentally conservative notion, that places more faith in the past than the future, or so it seems. So many historic preservation battles pit a glorious past against a cheapened, money-grubbing future or celebrate the accomplishments of long-dead forbears, implicitly denying the ability of current persons to reach such heights.
This thought came to me last week reading Thomas Friedman’s history of the 21st century “The World Is Flat.” He said we need a positive view to succeed in the future. I wondered – does that make all preservation a demi-nihilistic “things were better before and can never get better than they were” sort of enterprise? Continue Reading
Pilgrim Baptist Church’s walls are salvageable (yay!)
The restoration of Carson Pirie Scott Building is almost complete (yay!)
A developers proposal to demolish 17th Church of Christ Scientist (boo!) was leaked by Phil Krone.
Last week I read about the decay and demolition of hundreds of modernist landmarks in Moscow (boo!).
17th Church of Christ Scientist was built in 1968 by noted Chicago architect and preservationist Harry Weese. It is a flying saucer of High Modern delights, a washer and nut bolting down the bend in the river where Wacker Drive turns sharply toward the Michigan Avenue bridge. The quarter-round plan was innovative (although if I were a persnickety architectural historian I would point out a precedent published in Liturgical Arts in 1942) and the result was a building that is interesting in and of itself and also urbanistic, making its surroundings more interesting. So far the congregation have resisted the developer’s advances, but you never know – every church has its price. Continue Reading
One of the impulses and gifts of Postmodernity in architecture was that it successfully questioned the universalizing, problem-solving and ultimately dictatorial proscriptiveness of Modernity. One only has to think of LeCorbusier’s Modulor or type-needs, the Existenzminimum of the Bauhaus or the ranting of planner Edmund Bacon in the recent film My Architect. Modernism, like its political cohort Progressivism, wanted to solve the world’s problems – a noble goal – but it wanted to do it from above, by the fiat of experts. Like the old Second City routine where the college kid shushes the urban resident with a condescending: “I’m an Urban Affairs major at Northwestern University. I think I know a little bit more about your problems than you do?!”
Postmodernism trashed those assumptions, which was just as well. The Modulor wouldn’t stop evolving and radio and television did the same to the Existenzminimum and every NIMBY quick citizen took a page from Jane Jacobs and told Ed Bacon where to stick his plans. You can’t be a problem solver when problems don’t stand still. PostModernism, like Punk, reveled in nihilism, safe in its conclusion that Progress was a big joke. Continue Reading
First a quick note about New Orleans, where many preservationists are hard at work trying to save the homes of this historic city. Last week, Associated Press reported on a survey of 114,127 damaged buildings in New Orleans. Of these, 31,662 had no structural damage, 79,325 had partial damage and 3,140 were tagged red, which meant they should be razed.
Two comments: 1. That is less than 3 percent. 2. The AP report notes that the majority of the red-tagged buildings were brick ranch houses built since 1940.
Score one for the old buildings! Continue Reading
The Problem With Your Eyes
Art school attunes you to the power of visual arts – our wonderful Visual and Critical Studies program uses that power with other liberal arts. The importance of the visual in historic preservation is obvious – we are talking about landmarks, and we are trying to keep them – or bring them back – to the way they looked historically. Historic preservation practice is heavily defined by architectural appearance.
This project can be problematic, because the visual is so powerful it has a tendency to overrun our other critical faculties. People look at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 or the city’s Burnham Plan of 1909 and see the epitome of City Beautiful style. Arguably the first event was about technological progress and the second was really about sewers, transportation and business efficiency. But all you remember are the pictures. Louis Sullivan recalled the 1893 Fair as setting back architectural evolution with its reliance on Beaux-Arts style, his memory likely overrun by the visuals. Continue Reading